The art of driving bus

By Amy Reiswig, March 2012

We begin our series on the everyday jobs that hold our community together.

When you think about the people who hold our community together through the work they do, where better to start than with those behind the wheel at BC Transit. Bus drivers ferry thousands of us—on average over 90,000 per weekday—to and fro on our daily adventures, be it for work, play, family events, medical appointments, job interviews, you name it. Whether going up the peninsula, through the heart of downtown or braving the crawl to the western communities, bus drivers are the pilots we trust, perhaps unconsciously, to get us to where we need to go safely, on schedule and with a smile. Given the ever-changing obstacle course that is their asphalt workplace, this sounds a lot easier than it really is. 

Originally from Vancouver, Cathy Baker has been driving for BC Transit since January of 2008, after having driven university passenger vans and the equivalent of HandyDART buses in Ontario, as well as non-driving community work. 

She recognizes that bus driving is a bit of a career stereotype-breaker for women and that “People have the impression that you need to be a big burly man to handle a city bus,” she says, shaking her head. “Not at all. What it takes are intelligent people with a high level of awareness. It’s a very zen job,” she notes. “You have to be really present, able to roll with anything. The smaller your ego, the easier it’ll be to drive a bus,” she explains, since major aspects of your work change every day—route, schedule, passengers, traffic, weather.

While Baker drives a variety of routes, including the 15, 4, 28, 30 and 31, on this rainy Sunday morning she’s driving the 14 and the 11, from 10:05 to 17:59. 

The assumption that there are fewer people on the road is bogus, she says, swinging assertively onto Douglas. No matter what day of the week, bus drivers provide a greener alternative to car snarl and must deal safely with unpredictable drivers, cyclists and pedestrians. “There’s a bus driver joke that says if you aren’t drinking enough milk, go stand behind a bus. Clearly there must be a calcium ray coming out of the back lights, because as soon as I put my turn signal on, people’s skulls get thicker.”

Witnesses to (and skilful avoiders of) some scary driving, Baker explains that bus drivers save people’s lives without anyone knowing. “I don’t watch TV, so one time after a near miss, when a passenger came up and asked ‘Have you seen Canada’s Worst Driver?’ I didn’t know that was a TV show, so I just said: ‘Every day.’”

In addition to avoiding and even preventing traffic carnage, bus drivers are a kind of community monitor, called upon to be tour guides, disciplinarians, crowd controllers and sometimes even extra eyes and ears for the police, looking out for suicidal teens, wandering seniors, stolen vehicles. 

As a single mom with three kids, Baker says the combination of excitement and solitude suits her lifestyle. The schedule offers flexibility, and what might seem like boring stretches of isolation means: “Hey—I can have a thought to myself, just hang out with an idea.” So what occupies her mind while driving? “Memorizing song lyrics”—Baker sings with the Gettin’ Higher choir—“and writing music. Like these windshield wipers,” she says, pointing to long blades sweeping the rain-sprinkled windshield. “They can be a great instigation for rhythmic possibilities.” Pause. “You work with what you’ve got,” she laughs. 

In fact, Baker tells of a huge artistic talent pool among BC Transit drivers: one of the members of Cookeilidh drives, as well as Joyce “the Voice,” lead singer of The Soul Shakers. Plus there are potters, painters, dancers, athletes, PhDs. With over 500 bus drivers across the Victoria system, “If there’s a life circumstance or skill set you can imagine,” Baker says, “there’s a driver who has that.” And artistic bus driver talent isn’t the only hidden surprise Baker reveals. “This key,” she says holding up a small silver object as if it was one of Tolkien’s rings of power, “opens bathrooms all across the city.”

As I prepare to get off, I ask if the Victoria tradition of riders saying “thank you” as they disembark matters to drivers. “A little kindness goes a long way,” she affirms. “Therefore it’s incumbent on me to initiate that. I want to be a little bit of light for everyone who walks by me.” With a clear sense of service to the “public” that makes up public transit, Baker philosophically observes: “This job gives you a more realistic view of who makes up your community. In so many professions, you experience a smaller segment, a skewed vision of who makes up the city. This job makes me realize that we’re all just people trying to get somewhere.”

 “I’m not a counsellor, parole officer, police officer or therapist,” she says. “I’m just a bus driver.” As it turns out, that’s a lot more than I think many of us expect or appreciate.

Without a driver's licence, writer, editor, pedestrian, cyclist and transit rider Amy Reiswig figures that, by now, bus drivers have driven her the equivalent of at least a few times around the globe.